Are you a climber who has menstrual cycles?1 Have you ever wondered why your performance seems to peak or seems to drop depending on the week of the month? Maybe you experience an increased fear of falling or notice you have sloppier footwork at certain times. Well, there’s more science every day to help explain these things.
Even if you don’t have menstrual cycles, most all of us have climbing partners who do: investing the time to understand the physiology and how it affects your climbing partners will allow you to support them more effectively while they’re on their period.
Before launching into a week-by-week breakdown of the menstrual cycle and its potential effects on your climbing, here’s the quick binary breakdown: The menstrual cycle can be roughly divided into two phases, the low hormone (pre-ovulatory or follicular phase) and the high-hormone (post-ovulatory or luteal phase). (This does not apply to people taking hormonal contraception, which won’t be covered in this article.)
During the first phase of the cycle, the follicle stimulating hormone (FSH) stimulates eggs to mature. At the end of the first week, ovulation occurs and an egg is released. This is the start of the second phase of the cycle. If you’re interested in the whole process of the menstrual cycle in detail, there are several web articles and videos which I recommend— one of which is embedded at the bottom of this article. The typical menstrual cycle lasts around 21-40 days, with an average of 28 days. To simplify, I will illustrate the specific phases of the cycle with a 28-day menstrual cycle.
During week 1 (when the period starts), the amount of the hormone estrogen is low but it rises during the week. There’s evidence that estrogen is relevant when talking about sport performance during the menstrual cycle, as mentioned by Constantini et al. in the journal Clinics in Sports Medicine. For example, there is a correlation between estrogen levels and cardiovascular responses, as well as metabolism. Furthermore, estrogen has been found to improve muscle mass and strength (Chidi-Ogboulu, & Baar, 2018, published in the journal Frontiers in Physiology; Lowe et al., 2010, published in the journal Exercises and Sport Sciences Review).
This week might be the perfect time to start with gentle, restorative exercises and then to focus on training activities that don’t require too much core engagement—for example, slab climbing. (Because of the bleeding that occurs in week 1, there are specific problems for climbers with a menstrual cycle, both when climbing inside and specifically when climbing outside. These problems can include discomfort when wearing a harness during the period or the problem of changing pads or tampons when being outside.)
In week 2, estrogen and testosterone reach their peak and ovulation occurs. Testosterone is associated with muscle growth and increased muscle mass, therefore it’s highly relevant whenever talking about sport performance.
This is usually the time when people who have menstrual cycles feel at their best physically and also emotionally. There is even evidence that estrogen increases tolerance to pain (e.g. Amandusson, & Blomqvist, 2013, published in the journal Frontiers in Neuroendocrinology; Craft, 2007, published in the journal Pain). Applied to climbing, this might mean that sharp and painful holds might feel slightly less uncomfortable and that this time of the month is the best to work on hard projects, do overhanging routes or any projects that require core engagement.
However, high estrogen levels have been also been linked to decreased power and performance and might increase the risk of ligament injuries, as found by Chidi-Ogbolu and Baar in 2018, published in the journal Frontiers in Physiology.
During week 3, the week after ovulation, the levels of the hormone progesterone rise, while estrogen and testosterone drop for the first half of the week. Afterwards, estrogen rises again. The drop in estrogen and testosterone can cause slight premenstrual syndrome (PMS) symptoms. However, the rise in estrogen during the second half of the week often mitigates some of those symptoms.
There’s evidence that progesterone, like estrogen, is similarly relevant for sport performance, as pointed out by Constantini. Progesterone levels have effects on cardiovascular responses, on respiration, metabolism and on the body temperature, which are in turn modulated when doing exercise. The change of the hormonal levels in this week means that, in terms of climbing, it can be beneficial to take good rests between climbs during the first half of week 3 and not try anything too hard. It might be advisable to save the hardest climbing for the second half of the week.
In the final week of the menstrual cycle, estrogen and progesterone drop—the cause of all the typical PMS symptoms, such as fatigue, mood swings, cramps and pain. Importantly, PMS symptoms also include clumsiness and anxiety. This is probably one of the reasons why many of those who climb during this phase of the cycle notice mental effects, such as an increased fear of falling, alongside physical effects, such as lower coordination.
Hazel Findlay, a professional female British climber and mental training coach, openly talks about it. For example, she writes on the question-and-answer website Quora about her personal experience: “There is a time before my period where I am more susceptible to injury, less able to deal with mental stress and have lower coordination. In short my performance drops for a few days”.
Not everyone who menstruates also experiences PMS symptoms and even among those who do, these can vary depending on nutrition and stress levels. Climbing-wise it’s worth considering training more gently during the final week, and even taking a few days off climbing if needed. Some studies suggest that during the premenstrual phase there might also be an increased risk of injury (e.g. Möller-Nielsen, & Hammer, 1989, published in the journal Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise; Myklebust et al., 1998, published in the Scandinavian journal Medicine and Science in Sports)—something to keep in mind.
In conclusion, it can be helpful to understand the different phases of the menstrual cycle in order to understand potential physiological and psychological effects and to be able to plan climbing training accordingly. However, physiological and psychological effects vary between individuals and even within each individual, as does the menstrual cycle itself.
There is a lot of evidence which suggests that keeping track of the menstrual cycle aids in planning climbing and other physical training. Professional climbers such as Hazel Findlay suggest it, too. Findlay writes on Facebook, “I started tracking my cycle a few years ago and noticed my performance was different in the different phases. As Findlay notes, it can be worth not only tracking the cycle itself, but also paying attention to whether in a specific phase of the cycle climbing training is more or less efficient and whether psychological symptoms such as anxiety are higher or lower.
Finally, I would like to point out that although I consulted many sources while researching this article, and while I had physicians and physiotherapists to fact check it, I am not medically trained myself. I was interested in writing this article because I’m a climber who has a menstrual cycle and I personally can relate to a lot of evidence and suggestions I presented here. However, I’m aware that each experience is individual and the evidence might not apply to every climber who has a period.
I would be interested in hearing your personal experiences if you want to share them. Having a discussion around this topic within the climbing community will be beneficial to all climbers with menstrual cycles. Are you able to relate to the things mentioned in this article? Is your experience completely different? Comments welcome below!
1 You might wonder why I don’t simply use the term “woman.” Not all people who have menstrual cycles necessarily identify themselves as women. For example, trans-men might have menstrual cycles. In addition, not all people who identify themselves as women have menstrual cycles.
Julia Wolska recently completed her PhD in Psychology. She has been climbing for 4 years.